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Delivery committee prepares Q&A for Bar members, discusses legal lab

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John Stewart

John Stewart

The Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services, a committee created in 2019 at the direction of the Florida Supreme Court, is now moving to draft its final report and is working to let Bar members know more about its activities. The special committee consists of 10 members of diverse backgrounds from across the state. There are no members of The Florida Bar Board of Governors on the committee.

Committee members, at their April 7 meeting, reviewed a series of questions and answers to explain how the panel was created by the Supreme Court, what it’s looking at, information and data it has reviewed, and when the final report will be made to the court and the Bar Board of Governors.

The Q&A will be posted on the special committee’s page on the Bar’s website, promoted in the Bar’s social media, and run in the May Bar News printed edition as well as appear on the News online version.

“I think it will be helpful,” said former Bar President John Stewart, who chairs the special committee.

The preliminary Q&A notes the special committee was created by the court to examine national trends in delivering legal services, with an eye to improving access, protecting consumers, and maintaining lawyer involvement. Specific areas of inquiry identified by the court include lawyer advertising, referral fees, fee splitting, online service providers, and nonlawyer providers of limited legal services.

The special committee’s final report is due July 1 and much of the rest of the meeting involved discussion of how that report may be structured.

Stewart said the committee is considering the creation of a legal “lab” where new ideas and pilot programs for delivery of legal services could be tested using provisional rules and data collected on the results.

The lab would give “more meaningful access for consumers to legal services while still protecting the public and not doing something that we can’t undo because of unintended consequences,” he said.

The lab, he said, also creates options for how the final report is presented.

Stewart noted, for example, the special committee has prepared language that amends Bar Rule 4-5.4 that would allow nonlawyer employees of law firms whose work activity supports the practice to have part ownership of the firm. (Although the committee has drafted the rule, it has not yet formally voted on what language to include it in the final report.)

In its final report, the committee could recommend the court directly adopt such a rule change, Stewart said, or it could recommend the court create the lab and then use that to experiment with that proposal.

The same could apply to committee discussions about lawyers sharing fees with online nonlawyer providers of legal services, allowing nonlawyers to offer limited legal services in areas where lawyers are not providing those services, and changing the way referral service fees are paid. In the latter, that could include a flat fee per case referred or accepted but not fees based on the case’s perceived value.

Stewart said if the lab concept is ultimately recommended to and approved by the Supreme Court, he would like to see the program delegated to the Bar to operate with final authority remaining with the court.

Committee members also discussed the court’s authority over legal practice, including allowing nonlawyers to perform legal services. Lori Holcomb, a consultant to the committee, noted there are many areas where the court already allows nonlawyers to perform legal services. That include allowing professional property managers to prepare residential evictions cases for non-payment of rent for properties under their control, officers and employees of companies to represent those companies in small claims court, and corporations to hire non-Bar members who have been certified as in-house counsel under Chapter 17 of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar.

Stewart said one issue to be addressed in those instances is whether their own professional groups or the Bar would discipline nonlawyers if they violate court or Bar rules.

“I’m of the strong opinion that regulation should still happen directly from the court, just as the regulation of legal services does for lawyers,” he said, adding that would provide consistent enforcement. “The court should delegate that to the Bar, while always retaining ultimate authority.”

The committee next meets on April 20, and Stewart said he expects members will begin deciding what will be included in its final report. More information about the committee, including reports on legal reform it has compiled from around the country and Great Britain, can be found on its webpage.

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